Today on one more day of an unprecedented stretch of super cold temperatures, we look out on unprecedentedly huge drifts of snow, in the midst of a pandemic that has infected and killed unprecedented numbers of people worldwide, and listen to proceedings of an unprecedented second impeachment of an American President.
No wonder lexicographers have nominated “unprecedented” as a word for our time.
And this Sunday of the Transfiguration no doubt got into our church year program because it calls on us all to get used to unprecedented things—to never forget that the life of faith is a life that is open to the above average, the wildly abnormal, and the purely awesome. In other words: Transcendence.
This Sunday’s first reading is 2 Kings 2:1-12. It marks a turning of an epoch in human history, marked by the passing of the torch from one great prophet to another, and this fulcrum moment is full of the unprecedented and the transcendent. What happens when you stare into a blazing fire, or when you witness the uber-power of a tornado? This story sees both of those awesome forces at work as a flaming chariot separates the apprentice, Elisha, from his master, Elijah. Elisha doesn’t want to let go. He wants to ride out the tsunami and be blessed doubly by the spirit within. But this unprecedented and unexpected thing pries him from his plans; and then Elijah is carried away by the wind.
The Gospel lesson this Sunday is, of course, the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9. Just as fire and wind defy our understanding and overpower us, so now it is a cloud of unknowing. Two dead heroes are alive again: Moses and Elijah. How can that be? How can it be other than hysteria or superstition that creates such a mirage or hallucination in our minds. We want the power and the glory to be real, and to be captured with tents or tabernacles or boxes or books or smartphone pix. Captured to be studied and understood. But a voice from inside that cloud of unknowing says, “Listen to the Beloved Son.”
But we don’t want to listen. Listening takes patience. Listening takes forgetting. Listening requires a stillness as real as suffering. It requires supernatural stillness smack dab in the middle of unfolding clouds, wind, and fire; and we don’t want to do it.
Transfiguration, in the middle of pandemic, impeachment, and unprecedented winter is a reawakening to awe. It beckons us to abandon our need to cling and to control. It subtracts so that we can listen to the One voice that can call us through.
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